It was a hectic week that culminated in victory – albeit with a little drama thrown in – but William Crolla has had time to reflect on his professional boxing debut, and he’s happy.
He’s not particularly pleased that he couldn’t find his passport on Sunday morning, the day after beating Joe Hardy on points, and as a result his planned trip to Milan with girlfriend Nicole was scuppered. But every cloud – and there have been many in northern Italy – has a silver lining, and with the Lake District bathed in Spring sunshine, the alternative wasn’t too bad.
“I really enjoyed the whole fight week experience,” Will says, pint of lager in hand. “I’m happy with my performance to be fair, but obviously there are little parts to improve. And it’s been great in Keswick!”
The debut was a long time coming – around six years in the making. Will, a talented amateur, stepped away from the sport aged 18 as his attachment to the pub grew stronger than his bond with the gym. But after deciding he could dedicate his life to the sport and swap scaffolding for sparring, the day finally did arrive.
It’s a baking hot afternoon. Manchester, like most of the country, is enjoying brilliant May sunshine. A small side room at the Blok Gym on Ducie Street in the shadow of Piccadilly Station, provides brief respite from the heat outdoors.
It’s the Matchroom media workout day ahead of Lara v Wood II. It’s a routine event to promote fight week, but it’s a very new occurrence for William Crolla, younger brother of former WBA lightweight champion Anthony ‘Million Dollar’ Crolla. Not new in the sense that he’s never been to these spectacles, he’s rarely missed any of his brother’s boxing engagements. But this time, it’s all about him.
William, 24, is first to make his way to the small, white-roped ring that takes up most of the space in the room. Anthony walks behind him, hands already in the red pads that he’ll use to give Will the least strenuous of workouts. The older Crolla is decked out in black baseball cap, black t-shirt, and a pair of transparent-framed Prevu sunglasses - despite his protestations that they’re reading glasses and he hasn’t turned into Bono. “It’s ego, that. It’s the ego on him!” Will says, probably joking.
A few minutes of routine pad work, and it’s all over. Afterwards, Will says, “I really enjoyed the workout. It was a weird feeling, but it felt right. I’m not nervous, I always knew this was all going to come.”
The venue is The Stoller Hall, a modern concert venue directly over the road from the AO Arena. Today, the seats are filled with boxing media and the fighters’ teams. Not the usual crowd for a theatre more used to classical music performances. It’s a first press conference appearance for William Crolla, a man who dances to his own tune.
“I’ll just address the question the entire boxing public are thinking – ‘why is he up there?’ Why is Anthony’s son up there!”
Will, 12 years his brother’s junior, is warming into his role of boxer during fight week. He’s looking forward to sitting on the (lower) table for the undercard fighters on Saturday’s bill.
“I’ll just be me. Straight talking. After Saturday I want people to tune in to watch me, not just Anthony Crolla.”
Will says something similar under questioning from Matchroom Sport Chairman Eddie Hearn. About having a famous sibling, Will responds: “The second name gets my foot in the door, now it’s up to me to keep it open and I’m intent on doing that.”
The final formality of the week is set for the Whitworth Suite at the fight hotel – The Kimpton Clocktower, a grade II listed Victorian building once known as The Palace.
It’s a public event and there are plenty of Crolla friends and family in place when Will takes to the scales shortly after 1pm. The weight has been set at 157lbs and Will is just shy of a pound under the limit. His opponent, Joe Hardy, is a touch over, but as it’s a debutant in a four-rounder, Team Crolla let the slight infringement go.
There’s a much more significant issue a little later when it becomes apparent Mauricio Lara has no chance of making championship weight, so he will lose his belt on the scales. As Leigh Wood goes on to make weight, the WBA featherweight belt is still up for grabs for him.
From the fight hotel base – on Manchester’s busy Oxford Road - Darren Flewers is running the operation. As head of logistics for Matchroom, ‘Daz’ ensures fighters, and their teams are looked after. Among other things, he organises a fleet of people carriers to ferry each crew to the venue at an allotted time. Will is due to box at 6.30pm, so they’re scheduled to leave the hotel at 3.45pm. With military precision, driver Matt pulls up outside bang on time, and all are ushered into a sleek black Mercedes for the short spin around town to the arena.
Once parked up in the loading bay area of the ‘Artist Entrance,’ all disembark and make their way through airport-style security and into the bowels of the venue. Will and the rest navigate the passage between the TV trucks, through double doors and into a corridor that leads onto the main floor and ringside.
“Sink or swim,” Will says as he takes in the scene. Matchroom photographer Dave Thompson is already set up on the ring canvas; he takes the opportunity to get an early snap of the Crolla brothers.
Back into the backstage area and Will discovers he’s sharing a dressing room with Wood. There won’t be any crossover, Will’s fight will be done well before the Nottingham man arrives for his revenge mission against Lara.
The dressing room is a large square room with a grey sofa, coffee table and a half a dozen fold-up chairs scattered about the place. The toilets/shower area is through a door to the left and a TV monitor sits on a long counter attached to an equally lengthy mirror.
The Crolla team are all decked out in black tracksuit bottoms and white t-shirts – sponsors printed on the front, on the back ‘William Crolla’ in gold letters.
“William pointed out to me that there are good vibes in this dressing room,” Ant says with a chuckle. “This was Jorge Linares’s dressing room on the night I lost my world title and Ring magazine belt to him. Good vibes!”
Will is leaning back on the sofa, legs outstretched across the table - his new fight shorts, white boots and white gloves laid out neatly. In the corner of the room, strength and conditioning coach Jonny Reynolds has sorted the speaker and put on the playlist. It’s an eclectic 80s mix – The Commodores, U2, INXS, Michael Jackson, Simple Minds and Go West among others.
4.15pm. A producer from DAZN enters the room to ask if it will be ok for cameras to come in and film a bit later. Inspectors from the British Boxing Board of Control quickly follow to ask Anthony the details of his corner team. One of them, the familiar Central Area figure of Robyn Smith – three-piece pinstripe suit and walking cane – stays for a brief chat.
5.05pm. Will sits down to have his hands wrapped by Wayne Ambrose, who when not expertly preparing fighters’ hands for battle, also takes care of their nutritional needs by way of his meal-prep business.
Anthony, meanwhile, is quoting lines from Phoenix Nights and Max and Paddy. Gets him every time. The mood is light, but all know the serious stuff isn’t far away.
“I’ve got to separate it being my brother and that brother relationship to it being just another fighter and a fighter-coach relationship,” says Ant. “It’s just now a matter of me going through what shots we think the opponent’s going to be throwing and what shots we think he’s open for. We’ll work on them before we go out.”
5.15pm. Eddie Hearn is doing the rounds of the dressing rooms. He pops in to say hello to Will, they all share a joke about the Linares connection before the chairman of Matchroom sport moves on.
Ricky Hatton is also at the arena early. His son Campbell is second on the bill. He’s walking past the dressing room when he spots Anthony. The pair go way back – Ant used to sneak into this very venue to watch the Hitman during his pomp in the 2000’s. It became Crolla’s special place a few years down the line. Ricky and Ant are discussing the charity football match both should’ve been playing in, but for family boxing getting in the way.
5.20pm. Jonny – who works as S&C coach for Callum and Liam Smith and a list of champions, is at the arena to work with another client, Jack Catterall, who fights Darragh Foley in the chief support bout. As a friend of the Crollas’ Jonny has offered to do Will’s warm-up so, along with providing all the backing tracks, he puts Will through his paces with a series of stretches and plyometric exercises.
5.40pm. Gloves on, William’s bouncing around the room in his white t-shirt and grey underpants. The groin protector is on, but it’s not time for the pristine shorts just yet. Coach and cornerman Dom Senior is keeping an eye on the Hatton fight. They know they’re next, so if that fight goes early, all need to be ready.
William shadow boxes in front of the mirror - “I feel great, man. Can’t wait. Just want to fight now.”
6.05pm. As Dom and Wayne are helping Will on with his shorts (white with brown panels and gold trim – MCROLLA across the band), Campbell Hatton stops his opponent Michael Bulik in round five of a scheduled eight. All look at the monitor.
“Perfect timing!” shouts Ant.
6.09pm. DAZN cameras are now in the room filming as Anthony holds the pads and calls the shots for Will to execute. A floor manager appears to tell the room that William walks in ten minutes.
Fighter and coach go through their final moves on the pads. The ringwalk is imminent. Cutsman John Hodkinson applies the Vaseline as Womack and Womack’s ‘Teardrops’ is belted out on the speaker.
Will checks his hair in the mirror, smacks his gloves together and prowls around the room.
Ant is giving advice about the ringwalk – “don’t rush it, wait until the chorus kicks in. Milk it, have a look around, you only get one debut, enjoy it!”
The monitor shows a group of Crolla fans bunched up together on the edge of the inner ringside. There’s around 50 or so, already well-refreshed and in fine voice.
6.19pm. The DAZN floor manager appears at the open door – ‘ok, time to shine, let’s go!’ Will turns to Ant and says, ‘I’ve waited a long time for this!’ The older Crolla hugs him and responds - ‘William, go out there and enjoy every bit of it yeah?’
Will leaves the room as Anthony shakes hands with the rest of the team, before they all head after him, right down the first corridor, left at the end and then it's 30 yards to the mouth of the arena. This is where Will parts ways from the team. One final hug for his coach, then he heads to the top of the gangway for the ringwalk while the others move through the arena to the ring to take up their positions in the blue corner.
Will does indeed make the most of the moment, he looks at the big screens adorning his image with name emblazoned above it, and nods along to his chosen track – ‘Crazy Crazy Nights’ by Kiss. When the chorus fires up, Will marches towards the ring. The arena is far from full, but it’s a good crowd for the time of night and there’s plenty of noise as William climbs through the ropes to take the acclaim of those present.
Formalities over, the action begins and it’s a fast start from Crolla who lands a snappy one-two and quickly gets about his opponent, Leeds-based Joe Hardy. Rounds one and two clearly go the debutant’s way, plenty of solid shots landing to head and body, but there’s drama in the third when Crolla hits the canvas.
Referee Steve Gray immediately starts the count, much to the dismay of William, who is adamant no shot landed, that it was merely a slip following a tangling of feet. At the bell at the end of the round, Anthony leaps into the ring and throws a few animated words in Gray’s direction.
The mini commotion quickly dissipates as the fourth round begins with William again in control. He ends the fight very much on top with impressive shots landing to head and body.
The referee scores the fight 39-37 in the Mancunian’s favour, and everyone inside and outside of the ring is happy enough. In the post-fight ringside interview, both Ant and Will bemoan the knockdown, but Eddie Hearn is full of praise.
The third-round scowls have now morphed into post-fight smiles as William grabs a quick cuddle and a word with his parents Maria and Wayne before the team heads back to the dressing room.
“I was really happy with it, other than the incident in the third round which was scored a knockdown against him.’ Ant says.
“I think it was clear to absolutely everyone it wasn’t [a knockdown]. Steve Gray is a very good referee, but I thought he called it wrong, I probably over-reacted myself, but emotions are running high! Other than that, it was a very good debut and I thought he was close to getting Joe out of there in the fourth round.
“I think he will be exciting. I think we’ll have some good nights with him for sure. I’m proud of him, I thought he boxed well, and now it’s about keeping him in the gym and keeping him improving.”
Will is sat on the counter in front of the long mirror at the door-side end of the dressing room. He’s checking his phone to see what the illuminated ranks of the twitter boxing-sphere make of his performance. He laughs, looks up and shakes his sweat-soaked head as he murmurs something about Twitter trolls, and realises it’s time to put the phone down. For now, at least.
“It’s all a bit overwhelming,” he says. “It’s a bit surreal. A few years ago, I was partying, I was fifteen and a half stone, I was doing daft shit, and now I’ve just made my debut at the arena. Eddie’s impressed, Anthony’s impressed – and that’s the main thing. I’m pretty emotional.
“He [Joe] did land a few shots, but that’s me, I will get hit. But I’ll definitely land as well, and I thought I hurt him a few times tonight. But I just want to stay busy and stay active. I want more big nights like this. That’s all I can ask for.
“Walking to the ring was amazing. Kiss was on, I could hear people shouting. I thought, ‘this is the fucking bollocks!’ I loved it.
“Now I’m going to go and have a pint. I’ve been like a caged animal, so I’m going to go and have a pint and see my mates. I’m going to enjoy the night with Anthony. It’s a very special moment for me, this, he’s turned my life around, got me back on track. I’ve boxed at the arena, and I couldn’t have done any of this without him.”
With that, Will gets up from his chair and walks across to Anthony who is stood in the middle of the room. The emotions briefly get the better of the fighter who throws his arms around big brother and in amongst the tears, says ‘thank you’.